‘Speaking Out’ is a new book by Ed Balls, the former Education Secretary, published on 6th September. This is an edited extract from the Chapter in which he talks about his stammer.
Ed Balls describes how it was only when he was a Cabinet minister, at age 41, that he discovered he had a stammer. An advisor found the British Stammering Association web page on interiorised stammering, and he started seeing Jan Logan, a speech and language therapist at City Lit:
Through those regular meetings [with Jan], I began to develop a set of strategies which made life increasingly easier. I still lived with this fear that blocks could just come out of nowhere, and that one would happen at a time that would be disastrous both for me and for the government. I told Jan about this, and she gave me perhaps her most important bit of advice. “The best thing you can do is be open and go public about it. It will relieve the pressure and make a block much less likely.”
The trouble was, at the time, I just didn’t think that was a possibility. It felt like admitting a weakness, and that’s just not what politicians do. I did speak privately to a few people, besides friends and family. I told Michael Palin, whose name adorns the Centre for Stammering Children in London, and the Speaker John Bercow, who had attended the centre with me. I also confided in the BBC’s Nick Robinson; I thought it was important that at least one senior person in the media knew, just in case I had a real meltdown in public and nobody knew why.
The key breakthrough on that front happened a few months later in a primary school in Islington. As part of my discussions with the Michael Palin Centre and the charity Action for Stammering Children, I’d commissioned a DVD of children talking about their stammers. It was called “Wait, wait, I’m not finished yet”.
I arrived with Michael Palin to launch the DVD to an audience of 150 or so people. I’d been given a copy the night before, foolishly hadn’t watched it, and when I saw for the first time these incredibly brave primary-school children speaking about their stammers and saying to teachers don’t interrupt us, don’t finish our sentences, I was incredibly moved and tearful. I had to stand up straight afterwards to say a few words of introduction, and I was so shaky and thrown, I was blocking throughout.
Afterwards, a man came up to me and said: “Can I just ask you, do you have a stammer yourself?” And I said: “It’s not really about me today, it’s about the children.” And the man said, with a lot of emotion in his voice: “My son is one of the kids in that video, and what he’s done there speaking about his stammer is really brave. And I think you’re being a coward by not doing the same. Why don’t you give these kids some hope and confidence that you can have a stammer and become a Cabinet minister?”
I stood there mortified. I went back to the department and wrote a personal letter to every one of the children who’d appeared in the DVD, thanking them for what they had done and telling them that I had a stammer too, and that they had inspired me. And that was the moment I realised I had to be open about it.
Speaking Out by Ed Balls is available now, published by Hutchinson, Hardback, £20.00.